Offering monumental aid to black lawyersIn a...


Offering monumental aid to black lawyers

In a city where just under 60 percent of the population is African-American, fewer than one out of every 10 attorneys is black -- a disparity that disturbs Patrick A. Roberson, president of the Monumental City Bar Association.

"The main pressure is, people are still suffering from a feeling that blacks are not as competent as others in the practice of law," says Mr. Roberson, who was elected to head the 475-member association in December.

Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall founded the association in 1935, at a time when blacks were not accepted into the state bar association. Since then, the group has focused on expanding opportunities for African-American lawyers, primarily through education and career advancement opportunities.

"We start off early by dealing with law students, mentoring, providing minor scholarship money, just being very very available," says Mr. Roberson, 44, who received his law degree from the University of Maryland in 1986.

"Once [they are] on the bar," he adds, "we assist individuals in their practice through networking and legal education aimed directly toward the needs of black practitioners."

A Baltimore native who grew up in Louisiana before returning to the city and graduating from Morgan State University, Mr. Roberson was well into a career as an insurance claims adjuster when he decided to enroll in law school.

"It just seemed like a natural progression," he says.

Specializing in workers' compensation claims, particularly those involving people working on the waterfront, he rose steadily through the ranks. In 1992, he was named the first African-American partner in the firm of Smith, Somerville & Case.

Eventually, the need to note such firsts may be eliminated. But African-American attorneys, he says, still have a long way to go.

"People are still suffering from a lot of bias," he says. "We have a real big problem, of course. When you walk into a courtroom as a black attorney, people far too often assume that rather than be the attorney here, you're the defendant."

Wil Wilson, 31, has a passion for helping the disabled. A former Black & Decker machinist with a degree in art and a knack for combining utility and style, Mr. Wilson now designs furniture and living space for the physically challenged.

Children at the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital first stirred his interest. After being laid off from Black & Decker, Mr. Wilson went to work as an adaptive equipment technician at the hospital, where, six years ago, he redesigned donated adult wheel- chairs to fit the children.

He also developed a radio that a boy with only limited use of one hand could operate himself; other children were given Plexiglas trays to protect their schoolwork -- minor adjustments, says Mr. Wilson, that gave them control over their lives.

Mr. Wilson knows what it feels like to be disabled. An August 1993 accident left him without the use of his limbs for three months.

"It was hard having people look down at me when they spoke to me," he says of the time he spent in a wheelchair.

He is currently outlining plans for a hydraulic lift that will raise handicapped people to the level of others and enable them to do simple things like changing a light bulb on their own.

"You wouldn't know by looking at it that this is a handicapped-designed condo," says customer and now good friend Meline Baron.

Mr. Wilson designed, among other items, a table with rounded-edges, lockable castors and a storage unit underneath that holds silverware and a dinner tray for Mrs. Baron's husband, who has multiple sclerosis.

Mr. Wilson has opened Timeless Designs, a workshop near the Rotunda mall where he takes on assignments and continues to offer his skills and experience to the disabled. For more information, call (410) 235-4656.

Jennifer Brennan

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